Program Assists Students Who Need a Little Help to Finish College

Published December 6, 2014

Until only a few years ago, the public was largely unaware a large number of college students fall short of graduation for lack of relatively small amounts of money to pay a final year’s tuition or buy books or even to repair a car in order to get to class. Perhaps for middle class or more affluent students the need of a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars will not seem an insurmountable obstacle, but to a student whose family earns less than $25,000 a year, a $300 need can seem impossible. 

Previously there were no useful metrics to point out how close and yet so far many students came to earning a college degree. Recognizing this problem in recent years, the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education (NOCHE), which consists of the Akron Educational Community campuses of Kent State University, Hiram College, the University of Akron, Stark State College and the Northeast Ohio Medial University, went to work using existing grant and scholarship funds as well as specific outside fundraising to focus on this previously overlooked problem.

They were so successful that in October 2014 they beat out 56 other regions competing for a Talent Dividend Award of $1 million dollars from the nonprofit CEOs for Cities organization funded by the Kresge Foundation.

Speaking on behalf of NOCHE, Hiram College President Lori Varlotta told the Weekly Villager newspaper on November 5, “Hiram takes pride in being a part of the region’s efforts to improve degree attainment. I am especially proud, however, of Hiram’s success in educating and graduating—in very large proportions—first generation students, most of whom ultimately live, learn, and earn in Northeast Ohio.”

Small Scholarships, Critical Difference

The Success Scholarship awards went to students within a semester of graduation who had a small unmet financial need. These “completion scholarships” of less than a $1,000 each, made the critical difference in earning a degree for local college graduates over the past few years.

CEOs for Cities said this program provided the Akron Metropolitan Statistical Area 2,139 more secondary degrees than the area had four years earlier, the Villager reported.

Most universities focus on aid to students just beginning college with needs measuring in five figures, not a few hundred dollars for textbooks or money for a bus pass. The University of Akron has published online a 16 page Completion Plan aimed at increasing graduation rates.

The university’s publication recognizes “Barriers to Persistence and Completion,” acknowledging the difficulties inherent to a diverse population with 8,200 students attending part time and juggling work and family responsibilities. Eight-year graduation rates have been less than 15 percent. Approximately 33 percent of the students are first-generation college attendees. 

Giving Students Options

Akron has also begun a “Finish on time” initiative, to change the city’s culture through a communication and marketing strategy emphasizing that students who complete college on time accrue less debt and reach career goals much sooner. In addition Akron advertises, “Help a Zip,” which offers help for students having personal or academic difficulties. Student support professionals provide assistance to students experiencing mental health problems, personal troubles, academic issues, or financial problems.

All the participating Ohio schools began with $10,000 grants from CEOs for Cities, and all found other foundations to match the grants. Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Oct 30, 2014, Melissa Korn reported Kent State raised more than half a million dollars from other donors and has now given 380 students small grants of $250 to $2,000. Between 2011 and 2013, the University of Akron gave out $47,000 to 75 students who had at least 100 credits and a 2.3 grade point average and had exhausted other options. The following year it gave grants averaging $1,265 to 167 students, most of whom graduated within two semesters after receiving the grants.

Korn also reported Georgia State University introduced a retention program in the fall of 2011 to help students financially. Seventy percent of the seniors who received the grants graduated within two semesters.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute. 

Image by Nazareth College.